Book Review: Dreyer’s English

Written by Frances Peck; copy edited by Annette Gingrich

Review of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House, 2019).

"Dreyer's English" by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style hit the shelves a year ago. Or perhaps I should say it briefly touched the shelves, seeing as copies sold as fast as they could be printed. Repeating the improbable success of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne TrussBenjamin Dreyer’s guide sold umpteen copies and topped bestseller lists.

I’ve long followed Dreyer on Twitter, where he is natty, chatty, and sometimes catty. The same irresistible combination makes his book, from cover to cover, a trove of delights.

Speaking of covers, I started by reading the back of Dreyer’s English. Blurbs from Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers, and Lyle Lovett (Lyle Lovett!) made me eager to read.

The book’s front cover neatly telegraphs the cheeky tone inside. First, there’s the “erroneous” transposition of the apostrophe in the word Dreyer’s and the dot over the i in English. Then, there’s the subtitle, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, starring utterly, one of the so-called Wan Intensifiers that Dreyer rails against in the opening pages.*

This book executes a difficult trick: it tackles correctness without taking correctness too seriously—except when it does. Dreyer strikes a refreshing balance between insisting on certain rules and conventions and washing his hands of others. On some points, he cannot be budged: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” On others, he is cheerfully bendy: by the time he learned the nauseated/nauseous distinction, he notes that “it was too late for me to mend my ways, so I’m still happy, as it were, to be nauseous.”

Dreyer also balances high- and low(er)-brow references, helping himself equally from the salver of high-art authors (e.g., William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Herman Melville) and the trough of pop culture (e.g., Danielle Steel, Joan Crawford, and George Lucas). The footnotes are crammed with diverting allusions. Page through the meticulous index and you’ll be struck by entries unanticipated in a book about editorial correctness: blowjob, Cap’n Crunch, porta-potty, retch.

Dreyer’s English invites comparisons with classics such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which it effortlessly supersedes, and Garner’s Modern English Usage, which it nicely (if impudently) complements. Dreyer deals with topics you’d expect, like punctuation, grammar, usage, and spelling, and some you wouldn’t, like editing issues specific to fiction and tricky proper nouns (in which list Immaculate Conception follows hilariously on the heels of Guns N’ Roses).

Why read this book?

  • You’ll learn stuff. The book targets writers more than editors, so some of its guidance will be old hat. Still, aha moments abound. I discovered that after 30 years of copy editing, I did not know the difference between mucous and mucus and that (just as ickily) I have been misspelling ad nauseam all along.
  • You’ll recommend the book to authors and clients. Dreyer shares sensible, non-technical advice that’s bound to appeal to the writers in your life. Tell them about this book and you’ll be rewarded with cleaner copy afterwards.
  • You’ll go down intriguing rabbit holes. For example: as my deadline for this review drew perilously near, I hit a mention of “the late actress Brittany Murphy.” Late actress? Twenty minutes later, I sternly extricated myself from an online search that unfolded a bizarre story I’d known nothing about. The Collyer brothers, famous hoarders? Edith Wharton’s ghost stories? The nineteenth-century musical Florodora? They’re all here. So are—be warned—dozens more digressions you will need to read more about.

Knowledgeable, broad-minded, and hilarious, Dreyer is the copy editor we’d all love to hang out with. Hear for yourself in this interview with Grammar Girl.

*Dreyer winkingly salts his prose with these empty modifiers, 
 not just utterly but also remarkably, terribly, 
 and—many times—direly.

Like the mentally caroming David Foster Wallace, Dreyer revels 
 in the parenthetical (not to mention the parenthetical within the 
 parenthetical) and makes liberal and entertaining use of footnotes. 
 Some of them, as you’d expect, supplement the point footnoted. Some 
 undercut or even overturn the point. Some identify (and occasionally 
 ridicule) the conventions of British English. Some slyly allude to, 
 say, Donald Trump or The Shining or The Brady Bunch. Some contain 
 lessons; some are plain silly. All are worth reading. However, the 
 first-level footnotes—and this is the book’s only flaw—are marked 
 with an impossibly small, thin asterisk. As a result, you come to 
 the end of a page; see a footnote; think “Oh, a footnote. What does 
 that relate to?”; scan the page you just read for the asterisk; 
 fail to find it; scan again, all the while wondering how you could 
 possibly be a good if not excellent proofreader when you are unable 
 to spy a simple asterisk; scan once more; locate the asterisk; and 
 curse, for the umpteenth time, the design decision that yielded such 
 a ghostly marker. (I am not the only reader to experience this.)

Frances Peck, a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, has been working with words for 30 years.

Annette Gingrich, a co-chair with the Editors Canada student relations committee, is working toward an editing certificate with SFU. Hailing from Ontario, she fell in love with Vancouver while on tour with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. With a diverse professional background, Annette is psyched to continually grow as an editor, proofreader, and writer.

Image taken from publisher’s website

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